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Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Memento Mori

[This is a chapter from a book I am writing on Stoic spiritual exercises. It’s quite long for a blog post, but I’d welcome any feedback on it. Jules]
Perhaps the Stoic spiritual exercise that has fallen furthest from popularity and common usage is the memento mori, the remembrance of death. This is surprising, and revealing of our own culture, because before the mid-20th century, it was actually the most popular and widely-used of the Stoic techniques.

The memento mori is a meditative exercise to remind the Stoic student that the things of the world – the body, fashion, career, reputation, even family – should not be the primary focus of our minds, because these things can be swept away by death in a moment.

Instead, the central aim of philosophy, as declared by Socrates, was to teach humans to free the divine part of them – their soul – from the body and the passions. Thereby, we became less like animals, and more like gods. One way to free ourselves from the body was to remind ourselves that the body is just a vehicle, and one destined for the scrap-heap.

Thus Marcus Aurelius exhorted himself: “Stop letting yourself be distracted…Instead, as if you were dying right now, despise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries.”

Consider, he tells himself, the “decomposition of matter which underlies each one of us: water, dust, bones, stench”.

Another exercise is to remind oneself how all the glorious figures of the past, the wise, the beautiful and the powerful, are all now dead and buried. This is an antidote against any excessive vanity over one’s achievements, or self-loathing over one’s failures. It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’ – remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.

Don’t take your worldly achievements (or lack of) too seriously, the Stoics counsel, because they won’t mean much when your dead. Aurelius writes:

Hippocrates cured many illnesses – and then fell ill and died. The Chaldeans predicted the deaths of many others; in due course, their own hour arrived. Alexander, Pompey, Caeser – who utterly destroyed so many cities, cut down so many thousand foot and horse in battle – they too departed this life. Heraclitus often told us the world would end in fire. But it was moisture that carried him off; he died smeared in cowshit. Democritus was killed by ordinary vermin, Socrates by the human kind.

This exercise developed into a whole genre of literature, known as the Ubi Sunt, or ‘where are they now’. My favourite example is the Old English tenth century poem The Wanderer, in which an exiled knight mournfully ponders what has happened to all his old comrades:

Where is the horse gone?

Where the rider?

Where the giver of treasure?

Where are the seats at the feast?

Where are the revels in the hall?

The memento mori reminds us that, even amid the security and prosperity of great civilisations like that of Rome or the West today, death can come at any time. Conventional values teach us to fear death and hate it, as an intrusion of savage nature into our carefully-ordered plans. But the Stoic trains themselves to see through conventional values, to accept death as a part of the ebb and flow of nature.

Aurelius writes:

Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first gray hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth…This is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happens to us.

Keeping death in mind was, for the Stoics, a way of freeing ourselves from fear of losing our worldly possessions, including our body. It was a way of cultivating inner freedom, of releasing ourselves from bondage to the world.

The Renaissance aristocrat and essayist Michel de Montaigne, who was deeply influenced by Stoic thought, put it well:

let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it; let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant, let us invoke it in our imagination under all its aspects…To practise death is to practise freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

The exercise became very popular in Christian culture, where it was often used to remind Christians not to cling to the worldly life too much, but instead to focus on the after-life. We see it particularly used during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance: a period of growing economic prosperity and worldly achievement. Nonetheless, the culture of that time would often regulate its pride in human achievement with a reminder of man’s mortality.

A good example is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is perhaps the most Stoic of his plays. In the middle of all the optimism and expansion of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare wrote a play in which almost all the characters die, and the hero declares the futility of all human endeavour:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how

infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and

admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like

a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,

to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

But it wasn’t just poets who dwelt on death. Merchants and aristocrats would wear rings with skulls on them, or have death figures engraved into their furniture. They would get portraits of themselves painted in all their finery, with a skull in the background. Churches would be decorated with danse macabres, depicting grinning skeletons cavorting with reluctant mortals. Sarcophagi would show sculptures of aristocrats lying in serene repose, and beneath them, depictions of rotting corpses.

Charnel houses would exhibit hundreds of skulls and bones stacked up in a grim reminder of our fate. People would visit them to stir themselves into a less worldly and more holy existence. In the words of an old Breton hymn:

Let us to the charnel, Christians, let us see the bones

Of our brothers…

Let us see the pitiful state that they have come to…

You see the brothers, crumbled into dust

Listen to their lesson, listen well.

The memento mori wasn’t necessarily always a denigration of worldly existence. It could also be used as a melancholy reminder that, despite the pleasures of this world, still death was ubiquitous, therefore we should enjoy ourselves while we can. Montaigne mentions the example of the custom in ancient Egypt, where during the heigh of a banquet, the Egyptians would bring in a mummified corpse, held up by a man crying ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you shall be like this.’

The exercise started to fade from common usage in the Victorian era, the age of the industrial revolution and of widespread optimism in man’s scientific achievements. The Victorians were still fascinated by death. But instead of the memento mori’s emphasis on the body’s decomposition, Victorian death scenes tended to be highly Romanticised and idealised visions, that emphasised not the transience of the self, but its specialness and the specialness of its relationships.

The sculpture of Shelley’s corpse in University College, Oxford, is a good example. There are no worms or skulls here – the Romantic poet is preserved in unsullied alabaster, and seems to have given up his spirit effortlessly to a purer Platonic realm beyond this material veil.

And then, in the modern era, the memento mori all but disappears. Certainly it disappears as a therapeutic technique. While the self-help movement may have pilfered many ideas and techniques from Stoicism, it has steered a wide berth around its emphasis on human mortality.

Imagine if, on the Oprah show, Dr Phil were to lean forward and say, ‘You know, Oprah, there’s no real point getting worked up about life. We’re all just corpses anyway.’ The show would be unplugged, and his career would be over.

Modern academics have tended to see Aurelius’ musings on death and decomposition as an indication of his morbid and overly-pessimistic personality. We have forgotten that it was an exercise, with a specific goal in mind – loosening one’s attachment to the body and the self, in order to liberate the divine soul within us.

A similar exercise is still used in Buddhism in Asia, in a much more radical form. In the ancient practice of asubhabhavana, monks go to meditate in cemeteries, surrounded by corpses, and solemnly contemplate the ten stages of decomposition – bloated, fissured, bloody, festering, blueish, chewed up, scattered about, reduced to bone, and burnt.

The technique was put forward by the Buddha himself, in the Satapathana Sutta, as one of the four techniques for ‘arousing of mindfulness':

[A] monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up and from the crown of the head down, thinking, ‘There are in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, bowels, intestines, mesentery, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, saliva, mucus, urine….

And further, if a monk sees a body dead for one day, or two or three, swollen, discoloured, decomposing, thrown aside in the cemetery, he applies this perception to his own body, ‘Truly, this body of mine, too, is of the same nature, it will become like that and will not escape it.’

But this aspect of Buddhism has also been sidelined by the West. We want to be told we are shining Tantric warriors, not rotting corpses.

Modern society has, in the words of Philippe Aries, the great French historian, “banished death from society”. It used to be a public event – wars were very visible, executions were public, animal slaughters happened in public, mourning rituals, wakes and funeral processions were common public sights.

Montaigne wrote:

Our graveyards have been planted next to churches…so that women, children and lesser folk should grow accustomed to seeing a dead man without feeling terror, and so that this continual spectacle of bones, tombs and funerals should remind us of our human conditions.

Now death has been covered over and hidden. At the age of 31, I have never seen a dead body. We see death only on TV, in the occasional reports of massacres at the fringes of civilisation, in the ghoulish piles of skulls and bodies from the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia or Rwanda. That was the shock of the TV images of September 11: here was death, publicly displayed in the middle of our civilisation. Not movie death. Real death. It has become an object of secret voyeuristic fascination.

After the Vietnam War, which brought the reality of violent death into American homes and onto their TV screens, militaries have learnt to restrict press access and bring home corpses of soldiers zipped up in body bags and smuggled in to secluded military airports.

Animal slaughter has been shifted out of sight, sterilised, mechanised, made clean. Human illness and death has been taken from the home and shifted into the sterilised environment of the hospital, where it takes place behind a discreet plastic curtain. Mourning is no longer a public, communal event. Cities take no notice of the disappearance of one of their millions of inhabitants.

Instead of accepting death as natural, medicine has taught us to believe that something can always be done to stave it off. New cures can always be discovered. Positive thinking can cause miracles. “Don’t worry, I’m a fighter” becomes the expected refrain of the critically ill. Death must be resisted, because there is nothing else but life.

There is nothing but the body. We must preserve it at all cost, celebrate its beauty, build up its muscles, tan its skin, hide any signs of sickness or ageing with plastic surgery.

In such a culture, it is unsurprising the memento mori has all but disappeared. There are traces of its survival – in Damien Hirst’s art, for example, such as his exhibit of a hunk of meat slowly being eaten by flies, or his skull made of diamonds. But even here, there seems to be an inability to go beyond our culture of glamour and materialism – Hirst’s famous pickled shark is called, tellingly, ‘The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living’.

Goth sub-culture shows, by contrast, an apparent inability to consider anything but death. It is at the centre of Goth and metal imagery, in skull tattoos, on the covers of albums, in bands’ songs and band names: MegaDeath, Death Denied, Slayer, Dismember, Autopsy, Anatomy.

It’s as if, through some cultural eco-system, the denial of death by the majority of western society has forced this sub-culture of outsiders to become obsessed by it.

But you couldn’t say that the Goth obsession with death is really a memento mori in anything like the Stoic sense. The ancients used it to accept the natural cycle of life and death, to transcend the self, to achieve harmony with the cosmos, to overcome their pride and egotism. Goths and metal-heads, by contrast, use the imagery of death to assert their uniqueness, their rebellion against conventional society, their Romantic or adolescent appetite for destruction. They move from an attachment to life to an attachment to death.

A few modern Stoics, meanwhile, still practice the memento mori in a more traditional form. One of them is Chris Krause, a 21-year-old student studying history at Saint Joseph‘s college in New York.

Like many Stoics, Chris has a difficult childhood. He says: “My father was a pathological liar. A drug-dealer and a crack-head. He was a terrible role-model – a complete nihilist masquerading as a Catholic. He and my mother got divorced when I was 9, which was very traumatic for me.”

He found better role-models in the straight-edge hardcore scene. “I found moral guidance in many of the bands’ positive messages. They’re essentially Stoic, emphasising virtue and coherence.”

He approached Stoicism after watching the movie Gladiator, which features Marcus Aurelius. “As soon as I read The Meditations, I deeply identified with it. I identified with its message of living a good life of uncompromising values, not for a reward, but for the good of it. And I love their message that some things are in our control, and some things aren’t. Death, for example, just happens. You can’t always control it or avoid it. It’s just part of existence.”

When he was 18, Krause discussed setting up a yacht rental business with his professor of rhetoric at Saint Joseph‘s. “We decided that the yacht rental market was saturated, but noticed that there were very few competitors in burials at sea. It was mainly done by fishermen on the side. We decided to set up a professional sea-burial service.”

The business has been running for four years, during which Krause has organised and supervised dozens of burials. He says: “Stoicism has a very different conception of death to conventional views. It thinks of it as a natural event, not necessarily harmful – we should support those who are grieving, but we don’t necessarily grieve ourselves. I now see death as inevitable, it’s something I’m not really disturbed by.”

He adds: “I think death should be constantly in front of people, otherwise they let something like the war in Iraq happen. That was the consequence of a generation never having seen someone die in war.”

Personally, I have found the memento mori a useful occasional exercise, particularly in moments where I am getting down on myself for my perceived failures. Why aren’t I more successful, more famous, more celebrated? I remind myself that I will die in a few years, or a few decades, and any fame I achieved would be very fleeting. Life is a brief instant, so why not enjoy it as a gift, without imposing my own demands or expectations on it?

Near death experiences can often be life-affirming, reminding us not to sweat the small stuff, to appreciate existence, to tell those we love that we love them, and to focus on the projects most important to us while we still have life.

This is the idea at the essence of Tyler Durden’s extreme self-help course in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, in which Durden holds a gun to the head of a petrol station attendant, and asks him what’s the one thing he wants to do with his life. The terrified attendant replies he always wanted to be a veterinarian. Durden replies: “I’m keeping your license. I know where you live. I’m going to check on you. If you aren’t back in school and on your way to being a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead. Get the hell out of here.”

My own life was transformed by something approaching a near-death experience, when I was 21. I was at that time still struggling with depression and social anxiety, working for a financial magazine where I felt bored and alienated, and estranged from both my colleagues, my parents, and the human race in general. It manifested physically: my sense of physical feeling and contact became numbed.

My family went skiing in Norway, staying at our family hut in the Peer Gynt region in the middle of the country, as we do every year. On the first morning there, I raced down the black slope of Valsfjell mountain, and flew off the side of the slope, falling 30 feet, breaking my femur and two vertebrae, and knocking myself unconscious.

When I came to, I saw a shining white light, as hippy as that sounds, and felt filled with peace and love. I knew, at that moment, that there is something in us that can never be lost or broken, that we were all OK, even if our bodies wore out or our worldly plans came adrift. And I also knew, very clearly, that the thing I most wanted to do with the rest of my life was write books.

My body was taken in a ski-mobile to an emergency hut at the bottom of the slope. While the medics tried to stop the bleeding and waited for the emergency helicopter to take me to Lillehammer hospital, my father arrived. He came into the hut, and was horrified to see me so beaten up. But we also recognised, amid the blood and broken bones, how much we loved each other. And over the next week in Lillehammer hospital, we genuinely strengthened and renewed our relationship.

I still fear death. I have periodic bouts of hypochondria, where I become convinced I have got cancer or AIDS or avian flu. But I always return from my visits to the by-now-weary Doctor Malik at the GP in Kensington Church Street with a stronger sense of the sheer joy and wonder in human existence.

La Professoressa

In my post below, ‘Philosophy is Dead’, I argued against the simplistic idea that our reason is, or should be, entirely the handmaiden of our instincts and passions, which is what David Brooks argued in an NYT op-ed. 

I was heartened to find support for my idea from an esteemed neuroscientist, Rita Levi-Montalcini, who is 100 years old this year, and who founded the European Brain Research Institute in Rome, where she is known as ‘La Professoressa’. Shewas interviewed in the Times last week. 
She remarked during the interview: 
The brain has two hemispheres: one ancient or archaic, which governs our emotions and instincts, the other younger, which governs our capacity to reason. Today the archaic brain tends to dominate. It is the cause of all the tragedies that happen like the Shoah (the Holocaust) and it is putting an end to humanity today. It was the part of our brains which got us down from the trees, but it is the cause of all the disasters and the cause of the great danger to our planet today. It is taking the human race toward extinction.

She adds, at the end of the interview, while reflecting on death: 
The important thing is to have lived with serenity using the rational left-hand side of one’s brain, and not the right side, the instinctive side, which leads to misery and tragedy. 

I think she might be being a bit hard on the right side of the brain, and in any case, don’t many of our emotions come from the amygdala, in the centre of the brain, rather than on the left and right? 
She may be overstating the case, but I do think it is true that we can’t be entirely guided by our instincts or gut feelings, for the simple reason that they are very often wrong. 
We are unique in our ability to re-programme ourselves, to re-progamme our instinctual and automatic reactions using our capacity for reasoning and self-analysis (or philosophy, in other words). 
We shouldn’t downgrade this ability, it’s one of our finest.